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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Baby Steps

5 June, 2019

Chief Curator Robert Leonard explains why we will be screening 2001: A Space Odyssey on Sunday 9 June 2019 at 2pm.

Behind the scenes at City Gallery, we have whiteboard meetings to explore how our shows can be extended into public programmes. We generate mind maps of related items—questions and people; books, films, and music—looking for hooks. Our current shows, Semiconductor and Eva Rothschild, dovetail beautifully, but seemed to have little in common, until we started to talk about films we might show alongside them. For both, the sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey instantly sprung to mind.

Stanley Kubrick’s film was timely. It was released in 1968, a year before a poetic Neil Armstrong took his small-but-giant step. Opening in an African desert at ‘the dawn of man’, the film promotes itself as ‘deep history’. One tribe of hairy hominids is driven from its water hole by another. The next day, the losers awaken to discover a black monolith, the Africus Monolith, whose perfect, minimalist rectilinearity contrasts with everything they know. Inspired by it, they realise they can wield bones as weapons. Returning to the water hole, they violently drive away their rivals—they have discovered tools. The scene concludes with the most outrageous match cut in cinema history. As the bone-club is hurled into the air, Kubrick cuts hundreds of thousands of years into the future, to a satellite drifting in space, suggesting the intervening aeons were but the blink of a cosmic eye and that the satellite is a simple extension of the club—merely another tool.

Another monolith, the Tycho Monolith, is discovered, buried on the Moon. It’s transmitting a signal to Jupiter. We (the Americans) send a mission to investigate. Approaching the gas giant, a confrontation with a further, much-larger monolith, the orbiting Jovian Monolith, will jump start a new chapter in human evolution, upgrading the mission’s sole survivor, astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman, into a ‘star child’. If the Africus Monolith took us from using a club to colonising space, this next step is unimaginable—by definition ‘beyond us’ as untransformed humans, living now. Nevertheless, the film prompts us to imagine this unimaginable through its psychedelic Star Gate sequence, utilising slit-scan cinematography, colour separation, and other special-effects wizardry.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time someone had tried to represent the unrepresentable. ‘The sublime’ has become a staple of art. In the early nineteenth century, Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of a ship crushed by polar ice and of a monk dwarfed by a vast ocean had an awesome, quasi-religious aspect. But, our coordinates have changed. We are still belittled, but by different things. Today, particularly, it’s in the quantum and intergalactic realms1 that our commonsense expectations and measures fail, and we stand at a threshold.

Which brings us to Semiconductor, as heirs to 2001. Their work also seeks to represent the awesome and unrepresentable. Some of it addresses the more-or-less familiar scale of landscape (Earthworks, 2016, is about seismic phenomena), but much of it targets the ultra-small (for instance, the behaviour of subatomic particles in an experiment at CERN, in Through the AEgIS, 2017) or the ultra-big (appropriated satellite-telescope images showing solar wind and coronal mass ejections, in Black Rain, 2009). Viewing Semiconductor’s City Gallery show without reading the explanatory wall texts, passing through its successive rooms, is a little like sitting through the Star Gate sequence. While Semiconductor have a foot in science, they have another in art.

Back in the 1960s, minimalism was supposed to be a literal, demystified kind of art, but, with his monoliths, Kubrick forever corrupted minimalism with mystery and metaphor. With Cosmos—a key work in her show—Eva Rothschild follows suit. ‘I am a firm believer in almost everything’, she says. ‘I couldn’t make art without it having some sense of anxiety, superstition, belief, transcendence.’ Cosmos looks like a minimalist sculpture but also like some kind of observatory. It’s easy to imagine its planes and struts are aligned with the stars. Like Kubrick’s monoliths, it collapses history, simultaneously evoking the futuristic (with its hi-tech lines and industrial finish), the primitive (echoes of Stonehenge and Pacific mariners’ stick charts), and the eternal (evangelical church architecture).

Actually, more than Stonehenge, stick charts, or churches, I suspect Cosmos was specifically inspired by the Jantar Mantar observatories in New Delhi, which Rothschild visited—by coincidence—in 2001. Built in the eighteenth century, these fantastical M.C. Escher-like structures bridge astronomy and astrology, instrument and folly. Of the Jantar Mantar complex, Rothschild says, ‘Architecturally, it embodies the principle of form following function and, yet, its manifestation is miles away from the buildings we associate with that modernist mantra …’2 They could be from the future or the past.

Another reference point—albeit obscure—is Cosmos’s colour palette. Rothschild says it’s based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which floats in space, radioing intelligence back to Earth. These images are understood to be our most penetrating views of the universe, but Rothschild was intrigued to discover that they are largely fictions, being highly constructed and artificially candy-coloured to make them pretty and legible to a general public. They are not scientific data for scientists but images of science packaged for everyman. They could be called ‘science rhetoric’, ‘science propaganda’. This is a Catch-22 that Semiconductor constantly grapple with. While they celebrate the potential of scientific-imaging technologies to dish up a new brand of the sublime, they also press us to ponder what might be at stake in our seduction.

2001 prided itself on the accuracy of its science, but it framed science through religion. In the process, it scrambled evolution with intelligent design—as did Ridley Scott’s later Prometheus (2012)—having a bob each way. Indeed, there’s the suggestion that the Jovian monolith will shunt us beyond science. As if science—tools—is just ‘a phase we’re going through’. Screening 2001 alongside our current shows is an opportunity to think more about the relationship and contradiction between science and religion, science and art, and fact and feeling, and to ask again an old question: what’s at stake in representing the unrepresentable?

—Robert Leonard, Chief Curator

1. Not to mention the ineffable movements of oceans of capital.
2. Declan Long and Eva Rothschild, ‘Influences: Eva Rothschild’, Frieze, no. 189, September 2017, https://frieze.com/article/eva-rothschild-1.